I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 1998 and my parents and I were standing in line at Euston Station to buy tickets for the train to Liverpool. My father had promised me a pilgrimage to Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and The Cavern Club for a straight-A academic performance, and I had achieved that goal by overcoming the astonishing power of a Chemistry textbook to lull me into a sound sleep. We had spent a few days in London seeing other relevant historical sites like Carnaby Street, Abbey Road and Denmark Street, and our next step in the plan was to head north for an excursion that would include Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester (I was still in love with Liam Gallagher at the time).
Anyway, we’d finally made it to the head of the queue when two figures in rumpled suits carrying briefcases in their hands and fags in their mouths approached the line with harried, frantic looks on their faces. They looked towards the end of the queue, which was about ten transactions deep, looked at their watches and expelled a few expletives.
“You seem in a hurry,” I remarked. “Would you like to go ahead of us? We’ve got the time.”
“Oh, thank YOU!” said the taller, good-looking one. As luck would have it, a window became available immediately and the good-looking one rushed towards it, leaving me with his companion, who resembled a red-haired version of Marty Feldman.
“Train leaves in five minutes,” he explained, his eyes rolling every which way.
Our chat was interrupted by a sudden outburst of frustration from his companion. Apparently he’d run into a snag, but he used a phrase I had never heard before, one of such obvious power and expressive impact that it shook me to the core of my soul.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
From that moment forward, I adopted that phrase as my own, saving it only for very special occasions when I needed something to express complete and utter disbelief at the stupidity of the human species.
Fast forward to the end of 1999. Amidst the predictions of Y2K doom and gloom, every media outlet was publishing their “best of the century” lists, covering best books, best movies, the best set of tits . . . and of course, best albums. I was in one of the libraries scattered around the Claremont Colleges, finishing research on one of my first college papers (I think it was an analysis of how Byron’s club foot affected the meter of Don Juan). Because the stability of the Internet connection in the dorms was a jumpball proposition at best, I decided to hang around and use a more reliable access point to find out what was going on in the music world. As was my habit at the time, I began with the New Musical Express or NME. Right there on the front page was the news: NME had named Pet Sounds the best album of the 20th century.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I exclaimed, with great intensity and volume, crashing long-standing library taboos as if a two-ton bomb had ripped through the roof. Everyone looked at me in surprise, some glaring, some smiling, but I had given them a moment they would remember all their lives, just as the harried traveler in Euston Station had given me.
There’s no question that Pet Sounds would find a spot on my top albums list—the list of the most overrated albums of all time. The praise heaped on this record has elevated it to near-sacred status, a development I find completely unfathomable. I’ve listened to the album in mono and stereo, I’ve read all the reviews, I’ve read essays justifying its lofty position as the best rock album ever made, I’ve looked at the sheet music . . . and I can only conclude that this is a textbook example of what Hitler called “The Big Lie.” If you tell the masses a lie that is so extravagant that no one could possibly believe that anyone could make it up, they will believe the lie.
Christ, even Brian Wilson said it wasn’t as good as Rubber Soul, and Rubber Soul isn’t even The Beatles’ best album. Pet Sounds was an album that took some liberties with sound and instrumentation that other musicians claimed influenced their efforts. Influential? Yes, in terms of recording techniques, expanded instrumentation and chordal variation. Listenable? Barely. Enjoyable? That depends on personal taste, but when my dad and I talked about the inflation of Pet Sounds to iconic status, he made a very interesting comment. “Now that you mention it, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me how great it is and how influential it is, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they actually liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my friends play it, and I can’t remember the last time I played it.”
If anything, Pet Sounds reveals inherent deficiencies in The Beach Boys that they were never able to overcome. They never had to pay their dues, having lived a comfortable white middle-class existence in a typically dysfunctional family in the Southern California Dream World of the 1960s. Their earliest musical influences were clean white male trios and quartets like The Four Freshmen, and though much is made about how Carl turned Brian on to Johnny Otis’ radio program, The Beach Boys never immersed themselves in the blues, soul or R&B to the extent that The Beatles, Stones and Kinks did. As such, their attempts at finding the groove may have been mathematically correct but lacked feel. Beach Boys songs may make you tap your toes but they were completely devoid of the sexual tension present in truly great rock and roll. They produced clean, white-bread rock and roll with emphasis on the harmonies, not the groove.
Another fundamental flaw in the band that comes through loud and clear on Pet Sounds is that they never developed a social consciousness (their later attempts like “Student Demonstration Time,” are simply pathetic). The lyrics on Pet Sounds are forever trapped in the amber of Wally and Beaver’s room: songs that nice, clean, white high school kids can play at their weekend swim parties. Eight of the eleven vocal songs on Pet Sounds are adolescent love songs with lyrics dripping with teenage naiveté, traditional middle-class values and blatant sexism. They describe a world where girls are things that guys pass around; that the worst thing a girl can do is change and grow; and where young couples never engage in pre-marital sex. The two attempts to deal with personal growth or the meaning of life, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” contain awkwardly expressed, unfinished thoughts that add up to little more than mental stammering. An outsider named Tony Asher may have written most of the lyrics, but Brian Wilson thought they were wonderful and The Beach Boys recorded them. In 1966, Ray Davies did Face to Face, John Lennon wrote “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and even McCartney got into the act with “Eleanor Rigby.” Ignoring a world where change was exploding all around them, The Beach Boys were still singing lyrics suitable for The Ozzie & Harriet Show.
And because of Pet Sounds, they call Brian Wilson a genius? Before I deal with this topic, let me explain that I don’t think any human being who has ever lived qualifies as a genius: not DaVinci, not Steve Jobs, not Einstein, not Mozart. It’s much more accurate to say that people have moments of genius; no one is a genius 24/7 for an entire life. Every so-called genius has produced mountains of crap, theories that didn’t pan out or ideas that were flat-out bizarre. There have also been millions of genius moments of which we will never be aware because the person who had the insight didn’t have the combination of connections and good fortune that could have rescued the genius moment from obscurity. Brian Wilson certainly had genius moments, but you won’t find many of them on this album—you’ll hear them on “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations.” Some of the songs on Pet Sounds, like “Caroline No” and “God Only Knows” have lovely melodies and fascinating chord patterns, but the lyrics are so childish that the songs cannot possibly qualify as genius moments.
As noted above, I can understand why Pet Sounds earned its status as an influential album. In addition to the complex chord structures in some of the songs (although the minor sixths and sevenths do begin to get tiresome), the sudden shifts in key and tempo, the out-of-sync drum attacks, the use of alternative instruments and the harmonic complexity point the way to new possibilities. I don’t know if the animal sounds led to the ending of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” but they were another message that boundaries were there for the breaking. But in one sense, Pet Sounds marks a regression rather than a progression, for despite the complexity of the arrangements, Brian Wilson’s production style was still grounded in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” approach. This is a major flaw in Pet Sounds, for there are many times when the mix fails to adequately distinguish the instruments. In contrast to Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds has an astonishingly small sound field, making many of the arrangements come across as terribly crowded. While part of this may have to do with Brian Wilson’s deafness in one ear that led him to do his final mixes in mono, the end result is less than satisfactory.
I don’t know how an album with a muddled mix and piss-poor lyrics can be called the greatest rock album ever, but then again, what do I know? I have similarly low opinions of other allegedly great albums, from Astral Weeks to Exile on Main Street to Abbey Road to Dark Side of the Moon. The one thing that I will say in defense of my position is that it is my creation and has not been influenced by music industry propaganda . . . and those guys are better than Goebbels at making people believe in things that have no basis in reality—like the belief that Coldplay actually has talent.
Pet Sounds is Phil Spector on acid, nothing more, nothing less.